Organizations are obsessed by the quick decision. Meetings have to have actions as an outcome, and that means decisions have to be made there and then. We all get used to hearing a presentation or proposal and having to decide.
Last Sunday was a warm balmy evening here in the UK (yes, really) and my husband had been outside for a good hour indulging one of his few vices – smoking a cigar. He always returns from these little islands of peace and contemplation energized, constructive and calm. But what was interesting about this particular evening was that, knowing he had a taxing week ahead of him, he had taken not just his cigar outside, but pen and paper and thoughts of the week ahead. His comment on his return was that in 30 minutes he had made some decisions and thought through some ideas that would normally have taken him three hours, and that he felt those decisions and ideas were of a significantly higher quality than they would have been on Friday evening when he left the office. He hadn’t been thinking about them all weekend – and yet they just flowed on to the paper.As David Pollay discussed in his article a few days ago, Dijksterhuis & Nordgren suggest that complex decisions are much better handled by the unconscious than by the conscious. The suggestion is that the unconscious mind, when left to its own devices, makes better decisions.
If this is true, then are organizations enabling people to make the best decisions they can make? Given the sense of urgency and pace, the need for action and analytical problem solving so inherent in most organizations, how can we “park” decisions and come back to them once our amazingly powerful brains have done their thing?
There are so many examples of how this process is hindered – “away days” where all we do is concentrate on one problem, decision by committee meaning that the decision has to be made in the meeting, presentations designed to analytically represent a situation and recommend a solution – all to be processed in the moment.
This, by the way, is only one aspect of the Theory of Unconscious Thought being developed by Dijksterhuis & Nordgren. Their latest paper is well worth a read and suggests that we have some work to do if we want to optimize our organizational decision making abilities.
It seems to me that the really smart organizations are those that allow time to pass between the discussion of a situation and a decision – this encourages people to move on from an issue before it is resolved, and to return to it later. It may even be that providing “distractions” at work in terms of the physical environment or the activities people can do could also help us make better decisions. Going to the gym at lunchtime or playing chess for half an hour might allow our unconscious to get on with the business of running the business. It isn’t hard – but it is different.
Dijksterhuis, A. & Nordgren, L. (2006). A theory of unconscious thought. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1(2), 95-109. Abstract.
Dijksterhuis, A., Bos, M., Nordren, L., & van Baaren, R. (2006). On Making the Right Choice: The Deliberation-Without-Attention Effect. Science, 311(5763), 1005-1007. Abstract.
Sitting in a tree courtesy of random letters